By Christopher White
The Tablet National Correspondent
14th street has always been a dividing line for Manhattan. For some, it’s merely the geographic division between downtown and midtown. For many, it’s the marker between what’s trendy and what’s not.
But for William Spencer Reilly, executive director of the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, what stands out is that, statistically, it’s “the most un-Christian neighborhood in New York state.”
With a focus on cultural renewal through theatre, film, visual art, and music, the Sheen Center is aiming to change that.
According to David DiCerto, Director of Programming Administration, the Sheen Center isn’t just a bricks and mortar downtown arts facility. Instead, he described it to The Tablet as “a proposition.”
“It’s an idea that beauty can transform culture,” he said.
While the idea of the Sheen Center first took hold under Cardinal Edward Egan, it’s really “Cardinal Dolan’s baby,” said Reilly. The Center first opened its doors in 2015, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan often describes both its space and programming as unique to any diocese in the United States.
Reilly says the programming choices are quite simple: “It has to pass the litmus test of the good, true, and beautiful.”
In an interview with The Tablet, Reilly said that if a project can meet those criteria, then all ideas are on the table. “What we never do here is anything that’s nihilistic. We want to point people toward the light,” he said. “We believe the experience of beauty can really inspire hearts and minds.”
Taking its inspiration from Fulton J. Sheen – a Catholic priest and bishop who would go on to become a major television personality with up to 30 million viewers each week – the Center aims to become a hub of cultural activity for the average New Yorker, not just people of faith.
“When you think about the fact that when Sheen was on television, only 40 percent of his audience was Catholic…and folks kept coming back, week after week, to watch him. He was able to use his forum to express a message that was true.”
Last week the Sheen Center kicked off its first event of its second season with a new series, “Broadway Bares Soul,” starring former Miss America and Broadway headliner Vanessa Williams. The series, which will continue throughout the fall, will host various Broadway entertainers who discuss their faith in between musical performances.
The series was an idea of Passionist Father Edward Beck who believes the theatre industry has something to teach the Church.
He told The Tablet, “In some places our theatres are full and our churches are empty, so I wondered, what’s happening there that we can use?”
Beck said a series like this brings together people who might not show up at church, but will certainly show up to hear Vanessa Williams.
“It’s an opportunity to present the Church to them in a different way,” he said.
Williams is a lifelong Catholic who isn’t shy about what her Catholic faith has meant to her personally and for her family.
“It’s a comfort raising my kids Catholic,” she told The Tablet. “There’s tradition, there’s structure immediately, and there’s expectation. It’s actually easy. There are no arguments because this is what we do in our house.”
Williams first made headlines with her 1983 win as the first African American to be crowned Miss America. Her vocal abilities are known throughout the world and over the past three decades she’s either won or been nominated for almost every major entertainment award.
Along with stardom though, she’s had her fair share of public trials and struggles, including being the victim of sexual abuse as a teenager, two failed marriages, and numerous racist attacks.
Most notably, weeks before the end of her reign as Miss America, unauthorized nude photographs of Williams were published in Penthouse magazine and Williams was pressured to relinquish her crown. In 2015, Williams returned to the pageant as a judge, where she received a public apology for her treatment surrounding the scandal.
Yet for Williams, she attributes her Catholic roots as being the source of hope and redemption.
“I’ve never lost faith. I never doubted that my life would be worthwhile,” she told The Tablet. “When I would hear ‘no’ and doors would be closed and closed and closed and I would hear ‘they’re not interested in you’ or ‘it’ll never happen,’ I always knew that my faith would see me through….that’s how I live.”
Despite the fact that Williams has gone on to star in numerous films, television shows, and Broadway productions, there remains one thing she’s yet to accomplish.
“Pope Francis is a rock star. He’s a global messenger who calls it like he sees it and I love his courage. And I want to meet him one day,” Williams told The Tablet.
Williams’s affinity for Pope Francis is shared by the Sheen Center’s executive director.
“He couldn’t have possibly come at a better time for us,” said Reilly, who believes that events like the ones with Vanessa Williams are what the new evangelization is all about.
“It’s made it easier for people who are anti-Catholic or just ambivalent to give us a second look.”